Assassins quest, p.78
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       Assassins Quest, p.78

         Part #3 of Farseer Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
Page 288


  Is it a game? he asked me as we walked.

  Of a kind, I suppose, I told him shortly. Not one I enjoy.

  The women were already back at the camp. Kettricken was poring over her map while Kettle gave the jeppas tiny shares of the remaining grain. Starling was sitting by the fire, worrying a comb through her hair, but looked up as I approached. “Did the Fool find clean water?” she asked me.

  I shrugged. “Not when I last saw him. At least, if he had, he wasn’t carrying it with him. ”

  “We’ve enough in the waterskins to get by with, anyway. I just prefer fresh for the tea. ”

  “Me, too. ” I sat down by the cook fire and watched her. She seemed to give no thought to her fingers at all as they danced over her hair, binding the wet shining hair into smooth braids. She coiled them to her head and pinned them down securely.

  “I hate wet hair flapping around my face,” she observed, and I realized I had been staring. I glanced away, embarrassed.

  “Ah, he can still blush,” she laughed. Then added, pointedly, “Would you like to borrow my comb?”

  I lifted my hand to my own draggled hair. “I suppose I should,” I muttered.

  “Truly,” she agreed, but did not pass it to me. Instead she came to kneel behind me. “How did you do all this?” she wondered aloud as she began to tug the comb through it.

  “It just gets that way,” I mumbled. Her gentle touch, the soft tugging at my scalp felt incredibly good.

  “It’s so fine, that’s the problem. I never met a Buck man with hair so fine. ”

  My heart moved sideways in my chest. A Buck beach on a windy day, and Molly on a red blanket beside me, her blouse not quite laced. She had told me I was considered the best thing to have come out of the stables since Burrich. “I think it is your hair. It is not as coarse as most Buck men’s. ” One brief interlude, of flirtatious compliments and idle talk and her sweet touch under the open sky. I almost smiled. But I could not recall that day without also recalling that, like so many of our times together, it had ended in quarreling and tears. My throat closed up and I shook my head, trying to clear the memories away.

  “Sit still,” Starling chided me with a sharper tug on my hair. “I’ve almost got it smooth. Brace yourself, this is the last snarl. ” She caught hold of my hair above it, and ripped out the snarl with a swift jerk that I almost didn’t feel. “Give me the thong,” she told me, and took it from me to bind my hair back for me.

  Kettle came back from tending the jeppas. “Any meat?” she asked me pointedly.

  I sighed. “Not yet. Soon,” I promised. I hauled myself to my feet wearily.

  “Watch him, wolf,” Kettle asked Nighteyes. He gave a slight wag of his tail and then led me away from the camp.

  It was past dark when we returned to camp. We were well pleased with ourselves, for we brought, not rabbit, but a cloven-hoofed creature rather like a small kid, but with a silkier hide. I had opened its belly at the kill site, both to let Nighteyes have the entrails and to lighten it for carrying. I slung the meat over my shoulder, but regretted that after a short time. Whatever biting vermin it had been carrying were only too happy to transfer to my neck. I would have to wash myself again this night.

  I grinned at Kettle as she came to meet me and unslung the kid to hold it up for her inspection. But instead of congratulations, she only demanded, “Have you any more elfbark?”

  “I gave you all I had,” I told her. “Why? Have we run out? The way it makes the Fool behave, I’d almost welcome that news. ”

  She gave me an odd look. “Did you quarrel?” she demanded. “Did you strike him?”

  “What? Of course not!”

  “We found him by the pool where you bathed,” she said quietly. “Twitching in his sleep like a dreaming dog. I woke him, but even awake, he seemed vague. We brought him back here, but he only sought his blankets. Since then, he has been sleeping like a dead thing. ”

  We had reached the cook fire and I dropped the kid beside it and hurried into the tent, Nighteyes pushing his way in front of me.

  “He revived, but only for a bit,” Kettle continued. “Then he dropped off to sleep again. He behaves like a man recovering from exhaustion, or a very long illness. I fear for him. ”

  I scarcely heard her. Once in the tent, I dropped to my knees beside him. He lay on his side, curled in a ball. Kettricken knelt by him, her face clouded with worry. He looked to me simply like a man sleeping. Relief warred with irritation in me.

  “I’ve given him almost all the elfbark,” Kettle was going on. “If I give him what’s left now, we have no reserves if the coterie tries to attack him. ”

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  “Is there no other herb . . . ” Kettricken began, but I interrupted her.

  “Why don’t we simply let him sleep? Perhaps this is just the end of his other illness. Or maybe an effect of the elfbark itself. Even with potent drugs, one can only trick the body so long, and then it makes its demands known. ”

  “That is true,” Kettle agreed reluctantly. “But this is so unlike him. . . . ”

  “He has been unlike himself since the third day he was using the elfbark,” I pointed out. “His tongue too sharp, his gibes too cutting. If you asked me, I would say I prefer him asleep to awake these days. ”

  “Well. Perhaps there is something to what you say. We will let him sleep then,” Kettle conceded. She took a breath, as if to say more, but did not. I went back outside to prepare the kid for cooking. Starling followed me.

  For a time, she just sat silently watching me skin it out. It was not that large an animal. “Help me build up the fire and we’ll roast the whole thing. Cooked meat will keep better in this weather. ”

  The whole thing?

  Except a generous portion for you. I worked my knife around a knee joint, snapped the shank free and cut the remaining gristle.

  I’ll want more than bones, Nighteyes reminded me.

  Trust me, I told him. By the time I was finished, he had the head, hide, all four shanks, and one hind quarter to himself. It made it awkward to fasten the meat to a spit, but I managed. It was a young animal, and though it did not have much fat, I expected the meat would be tender. The hardest part would be waiting for it to be cooked. The flames licked their tips against it, searing it, and the savory smell of roasting meat taunted me.

  “Are you so angry with the Fool?” Starling asked me quietly.

  “What?” I glanced over my shoulder at her.

  “In the time we have traveled together, I have come to see how you are with one another. Closer than brothers. I would have expected you to sit beside him and fret, as you did when he was ill. Yet you behave as if nothing is wrong with him at all. ”

  Minstrels, perhaps, see too clearly. I pushed my hair back from my face and thought. “Earlier today, he came to me and we talked. About what he would do, for Molly, if I did not live to return to her. ” I looked at Starling and shook my head. When my throat went tight, it surprised me. “He does not expect me to survive. And when a prophet says such a thing, it is hard to believe otherwise. ”

  The look of dismay on her face was not comforting. It gave the lie to her words when she insisted, “Prophets are not always right. Did he say, for certain, that he had seen your death?”

  “When I asked him, he would not answer,” I replied.

  “He should not have even brought up such a topic,” Starling suddenly exclaimed angrily. “How can he expect you to have heart for whatever you must do, when you believe it will be your death?”

  I shrugged my shoulders at her silently. I had refused to think of it the whole time we had been hunting. Instead of going away, the feelings had only built up. The misery I suddenly felt was overwhelming. Yes, and the anger, too. I was furious at the Fool for telling me. I forced myself to consider it. “The tidings are scarcely his doing. And I cannot fault his intent. Yet
it is hard to face one’s death, not as a thing that will happen someday, somewhere, but as something that will likely occur before this summer loses its green. ” I lifted my head and looked around the verdant wild meadow that surrounded us.

  It is amazing how different a thing appears when you know it is the last one you will have. Every leaf on every limb stood out, in a multitude of greens. Birds sang challenges to one another, or winged by in flashes of color. The smells of the cooking meat, of the earth itself, even the sound of Nighteyes cracking a bone between his jaws were all suddenly unique and precious things. How many days like this had I walked through blindly, intent only on having a mug of ale when I got to town or what horse must be taken for shoeing today? Long ago, in Buckkeep, the Fool had warned me that I should live each day as if it were significant, as if every day the fate of the world depended on my actions. Now I suddenly grasped what he had been trying to tell me. Now, when the days left to me had dwindled to where I might count them.

  Starling put her hands on my shoulders. She leaned down and put her cheek against mine. “Fitz, I am so sorry,” she said quietly. I scarcely heard her words, only her belief in my death. I stared at the meat cooking over the flames. It had been a live kid.

  Death is always at the edge of now. Nighteyes’ thought was gentle. Death stalks us, and he is ever sure of his kill. It is not a thing to dwell on, but it is something we all know, in our guts and bones. All save humans.

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  With shock, I beheld what the Fool had been trying to teach me about time. I suddenly wished to go back, to have again each separate day to spend. Time. I was trapped in it, fenced into a tiny piece of now that was the only time I could influence. All the soons and tomorrows I might plan were ghost things that might be snatched from me at any moment. Intentions were nothing. Now was all I had. I suddenly stood up.

  “I understand,” I said aloud. “He had to tell me, to push me. I have to stop acting as if there is a tomorrow when I can put things right. It all has to be done now, right away, with no concern for tomorrow. No belief in tomorrow. No fears for tomorrow. ”

  “Fitz?” Starling drew back from me a little way. “You sound as if you are going to do something foolish. ” Her dark eyes were full of worry.

  “Foolish,” I said to myself. “Foolish as the Fool is. Yes. Could you watch the meat, please?” I asked Starling humbly.

  I did not wait for her reply. I stood as she stepped free of me and went into the yurt. Kettle sat by the Fool, simply watching him sleep. Kettricken was mending a seam in her boot. They both glanced up as I came in. “I need to talk to him,” I said simply. “Alone, if you would not mind. ”

  I ignored their puzzled glances. I already wished I had not told Starling what the Fool had told me. Doubtless she would tell the others, but just now I did not want to share it with them. I had something important to tell the Fool, and I would do it now. I did not wait to watch them leave the yurt. Instead I sat down beside the Fool. I touched his face gently, feeling the coolness of his cheek. “Fool,” I said quietly. “I need to talk to you. I understand. I think I finally understand what you’ve been trying to teach me all along. ”

  It took me several more efforts before he stirred to wakefulness. I finally shared some of Kettle’s concern. This was not the simple sleep of a man at a day’s end. But finally he opened his eyes and peered up at me through the gloom. “Fitz? Is it morning?” he asked.

  “Evening. And there is fresh meat roasting, and soon it will be done. I think a good meal will help put you right. ” I started to hesitate, then recalled my new resolution. Now. “I was angry at you earlier, for what you told me. But now I think I understand why. You are right, I have been hiding in the future and wasting my days. ” I took a breath. “I want to give Burrich’s earring over to you, into your keeping. Af . . . afterward, I’d like you to take it to him. And tell him I did not die outside some shepherd’s hut, but keeping my oath to my king. That will mean something to him, it may pay him back a bit for all he has done for me. He taught me to be a man. I don’t want that left unsaid. ”

  I unfastened the catch of the earring and drew it from my ear. I pressed it into the Fool’s lax hand. He lay on his side, listening silently. His face was very grave. I shook my head at him.

  “I have nothing to send Molly, nothing for our child. She’ll have the pin Shrewd gave me so long ago, but little more than that. ” I was trying to keep my voice steady, but the importance of my words was choking me. “It may be wisest not to tell Molly that I lived past Regal’s dungeons. If that can be managed. Burrich would understand the reason for such a secret. She has mourned me as dead once, there is no sense in telling her otherwise. I am glad you will seek her out. Make toys for Nettle. ” Against my will, tears stung my eyes.

  The Fool sat up, his face full of concern. He gripped my shoulder gently. “If you want me to find Molly, you know I will, if it comes to that. But why must we think of such things now? What do you fear?”

  “I fear my death. ” I admitted it. “But fearing it will not stop it. So I make what provisions I can. As I should have, long ago. ” I met his smoky eyes squarely. “Promise me. ”

  He looked down at the earring in his hand. “I promise. Though why you think my chances are better than yours, I do not know. Nor do I know how I will find them, but I will. ”

  I felt great relief. “I told you earlier. I know only that their cottage is near a village called Capelin Beach. There is more than one Capelin Beach in Buck, that is true. But if you tell me you will find her, I believe you will. ”

  “Capelin Beach?” His eyes went distant. “I think I recall . . . I thought I had dreamed that. ” He shook his head and almost smiled. “So I am now a party to one of the closest-held secrets in Buck. Chade told me that not even he knew precisely where Burrich had hidden Molly away. He had only a place to leave a message for Burrich, so Burrich might come to him. “The fewer who know a secret, the fewer can tell it,’ he told me. Yet it seems to me I have heard that name before. Capelin Beach. Or dreamed it, perhaps. ”

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  My heart went cold. “What do you mean? Have you had a vision of Capelin Beach?”

  He shook his head. “Not a vision, no. Yet a nightmare toothier than most, so that when Kettle found and woke me, I felt I had not slept at all, but had been fleeing for my life for hours. ” He shook his head again slowly and rubbed at his eyes, yawning. “I do not even recall lying down to sleep outside. But that is where they found me. ”

  “I should have known something was wrong with you,” I apologized. “You were by the hot spring, speaking to me of Molly and . . . things. And then you suddenly lay down and went to sleep. I thought you were mocking me,” I admitted sheepishly.

  He gave a tremendous yawn. “I do not even recall seeking you out,” he admitted. He sniffed suddenly. “Did you say there was meat roasting?”

  I nodded. “The wolf and I got a kid. It’s young and should be tender. ”

  “I’m hungry enough to eat old shoes,” he declared. He threw back his bedding and left the tent. I followed him.

  That meal was a better time than we had had in days. The Fool seemed weary and pensive, but had abandoned his barbed humor. The meat, though not tender as fat lamb, was better than anything we had had in weeks. By the end of the meal, I shared Nighteyes’ sleepy satiation. He curled up outside by Kettricken to share her watch while I sought my blankets in the tent.

  I had half expected the Fool to be wakeful after he had slept so much of the afternoon away. Instead he was first to his blankets and deeply asleep before I had even dragged my boots off. Kettle set out her gamecloth and gave me a problem to consider. I lay down to get what rest I could while Kettle watched over my sleep.

  But I got small rest that night. No sooner had I dozed off than the Fool began to twitch and yip in his sleep. Even Nighteyes poked his head in the tent door to see
what it was about. It took Kettle several tries to rouse him, and when he dozed off again, he slipped right back into his noisy dreams. That time I reached over to shake him. But when I touched his shoulder, awareness of him surged through me. For an instant, I shared his night terror. “Fool, wake up!” I cried out to him, and as if in answer to that command, he sat up.

  “Let go, let go!” he cried desperately. Then, looking round and finding that no one held him, he dropped back to his bedding. He turned his eyes to meet mine.

  “What were you dreaming?” I asked him.

  He thought, then shook his head. “It’s gone, now. ” He took a shuddering breath. “But I fear it waits for me, should I close my eyes. I think I shall see if Kettricken wants some company. I would rather be awake than face . . . whatever it was I was facing in my dreams. ”

  I watched him leave the tent. Then I lay back in my blankets. I closed my eyes. I found it, faint as a silver shining thread. There was a Skill-bond between us.

  Ah. Is that what that is? the wolf marveled.

  Can you feel it, too?

  Only sometimes. It is like what you had with Verity.

  Only weaker.

  Weaker? I think not. Nighteyes considered. Not weaker, my brother. But different. Fashioned more like a Wit-bond than a Skill-joining.

  He looked up at the Fool as the Fool came out of the tent. After a time, the Fool frowned to himself and looked down at Nighteyes.

  You see, said the wolf. He senses me. Not clearly, but he does. Hello, Fool. My ears itch.

  Outside the tent, the Fool reached down suddenly to scratch the wolf’s ears.


  The Quarry

  THERE ARE LEGENDS, among the Mountain folk, of an ancient race, much gifted with magic and knowing many things now lost to men forever. These tales are in many ways similar to the tales of elves and Old Ones that are told in the Six Duchies. In some cases, the tales are so similar as to be obviously the same story adapted by different folk. The most obvious example of this would be the tale of the Flying Chair of the Widow’s Son. Among the Mountain folk, that Buck tale becomes the Flying Sled of the Orphan Boy. Who can tell which telling was first?

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